The Old Inn at Punta De Sangre
She had received the news while on the road, and because the transport plane couldn’t get her out due to heavy weather, she’d missed the funeral. So, she continued with her three-week research trip. Now Colleen had just arrived on the red-eye into San Francisco. She never slept on planes because she was afraid she’d dream of falling. Sleep-deprived but not sleepy, she asked the only cabby hanging around the airport at three in the morning to take her to the financial district, downtown.
While the cab zipped along the deserted Bayshore Freeway, she watched a colossal fog bank swallow the whole coast range. The wind teased out tendrils from the top of the bank. Backlit by the moon, the cloud mass towered so far beyond human scale that she was surprised 3 by how much volume there actually was in the sky. As the mass advanced, it snuffed whole galaxies above the freeway. She felt that way, as if she were being extinguished.
Whenever Colleen was frightened of the way her life seemed to be going—which had been, on-and-off, since she could remember—she worked harder, so hard she couldn’t think about who she was or why she was working so hard. The MO was a gift from her father.
She was a gold stock analyst employed by the venerable merchant bank, Loughnot Capital, Ltd. She regarded her job not just as what she did, but as who she was. Colleen prided herself on intensity. She was the number-two ranked gold stock analyst in the world because she did her homework like nobody else: dirty-fingernails, grit-in-the-teeth primary research. There was a residue of ancestral Irish miners in Colleen Fitzgerald’s genes, something dwarfish—a desire to tunnel, for answers or treasure, flavored by terror of the big dark.
The cab smelled like exhaled smoke and cheap men’s products. She rolled her window part way down. The rush of briny air smarted in her sinuses. She loved its moisture and richness. She could almost feel the lines in her face softening after the dehydrating travel. She had grown up by the California ocean, and fog was like the forgotten moments that made her who she was, blanketing everything, yet also insubstantial.
* * *
She slumped back into a corner of the cab so the driver couldn’t see her in the rear view. The stream of wind through her window pulled and frizzed her hair. A closet thumb-sucker, she allowed herself a few surreptitious sucks. Fellow suckers would recognize the callus below her knuckle, the frayed thumbnail, and the pink tinge around the cuticle.
She checked her voice-mail. She was too tired to expect anything but more bad news. In the past eight hours, twenty-two new messages had queued up, most of them ugly except one from Alex, her friend and neighbor. He wished her a happy thirty-third birthday. She cut off his voice on the “happy.” She would save it to savor later. God only knew when. She had personal calls five weeks old in her archive file.
She scanned the messages. Some of the calls she foisted on other players. The particularly whiny plaints from the sales force she forwarded en masse to Bob Gross, Loughnot’s head of sales and trading.
“Tell the crybabies to go long gold,” she told Gross’s machine.
The tough talk came easier and easier. It used to be a joke. Sam would laugh at her when she resorted to it.
Several messages were from Loughnot’s most important institutional clients to the effect of, I’ll never buy another stock you recommend, bitch. They were understandably upset at the three latest disasters among her “Buy” recommendations. She’d been named to the Institutional Investor All-America Team for the fifth time in five years, but that was four months ago. Clients, like most people in the investment business, have short memories.
The unrelated disasters at Home Lode, Gold Fields, and Bonanza— her three bad investment calls—had hit in rapid succession, as if her recommendations shared some common weakness, as if a “Buy” rating from her were an anti-Midas touch. But nobody could have predicted when a hundred-year storm would knock Home Lode’s second-largest open pit out of production. Nor could anybody have guessed that Gold Fields would lose ore grade as the Carbon Leader took a turn the most sophisticated geologic probes had failed to detect.
Someone else, however, might have seen the problem that resulted in her third bad call, the cooked-book Bonanza Mines in western Nevada. Bonanza had become victim to an organizational-behavior deviation which she had failed to detect. Bonanza, it turned out, had salted the core samples on which their estimated reserves were based. Colleen might be accused of having lost objectivity on the company, having slept several times with Bonanza’s CEO, Eric Moore. That Eric had been far more interested in Bonanza than in her, she had thought all to the good. Eric was a desperado, a classic type-A entrepreneur. She had gambled that the profit motive was stronger in him than the urge to self-destruct. She’d been wrong. Again. Her life’s achievements felt like a lode petering out as she mined deeper.
This trip had been especially tiring. She had endured sulfur-stink and hundred-twenty-degree heat on a stope a mile under Johannesburg. Next stop, at Kalgoorlie Super Pit in Australia, she was breakfast for Tom Thumb-sized fleas. After that, she shared her bed at Serra Pelada with an Amazonian spider. And then, to be sure she’d captured the extremes, she froze her buns off at the disastrously cold Iron Plate in the Canadian Rockies. There, while watching the inexorable forces of climate make the Iron Plate investors’ dreams of profits pathetically optimistic, she received, via satellite, the news that Sam was dead. Now, headed for the office, this was how it felt to be coming home, and there was nobody there who loved her.
The waves roared and lashed beyond the Half Moon Bay reef, but Sara McGrath figured she’d get away before the tide turned. Intent on her task, she picked her way across a greenish-brown expanse of seaweed and moss-slicked rocks flecked with neon jolts of color, a mother lode of intertidal life. Minus tide was reason enough to ignore the banshee calls of responsibility that plagued every sober hour.
Even in her cumbersome storm gear, she moved toward a sea palm stand as easily as a buoy rides a swell. The arch of her rubber boots connected with small, rocky protuberances, avoiding the infinitesimal worlds of life in the crevices. For balance, she gripped a driftwood pole with bulges like swollen joints. In her other hand, she dragged a bull kelp by its holdfast.
Tall and, according to her ex, rawboned, her nimbus of short, blonde curls fluttered in the sea breeze as she foraged. She squatted to poke an anemone as big as a salad plate. Its fluorescent pink and green tendrils folded inward and pulled on her hand. The pulsating, squishy muscle felt, pathetically, as close as she’d been to sex in quite a while. She could use all her fingers and toes to count the ways that being thirty-eight and a single parent sucked, but skipping work to spend a late-winter morning on the tide pools wasn’t one of them.
Sara planned her life around the alignments of sun and moon and season, those optimal tidal opportunities to harvest seaweed. Against every shred of practical advice lobbed at her since her husband dumped her three years earlier, she was in the process of building a small
seaweed-products business. To support herself and her teenage daughter, she worked as a realtor, real estate being the only growth industry on the San Mateo County coast.
The long, leafy blades of the kelp she hauled snagged on a bed of mussels. Turning to free the fronds, she laughed at what a dork she must look like – long limbs sticking out of a boxy, bright yellow middle, with her slimy tail of seaweed swishing behind – some atavistic proto-mammal trying to find its way home.
She checked her watch. Damn.
The tide had not yet turned, and Sara could get in at least another hour of harvesting before it became dangerous. But for once she had a shot at a multi-million transaction.
New clients had just signed a purchase agreement for the old Punta de Sangre Inn. A ramshackle mess of a property, it commanded a killer view of the Punta de Sangre lighthouse and the Año Nuevo elephant seal breeding grounds.
It was already two o’clock, and she had to get ready for a late-afternoon property viewing. Before the client arrived, she had to line up the inspections and order the title report.
She’d compromise, she decided, and stay out another thirty minutes. She lifted her face to a weak sun shrouded in mist and recalled the red sun earlier that morning. Sailors take warning. She had no choice but to harvest — an incoming storm would mess up tide pool conditions for days. No question, she thought, her priorities were definitely skewed. And she had no intention of changing them.
The rocks where she was working, just outside the marine preserve, made a submerged spit off steep, inaccessible cliffs. At any but minus tides, the waves rebounding off the cliffs made this area one of the most treacherous tidal zones in San Mateo County.The reef curved inland from the spit, and Sara began to make her way along the curve, still on the far edge of the seaweed field. In one of the furthest pools before the rocks dropped off into deeper water, Sara saw a flash of something light-colored.
With her eye on the middle distance, the lead wave of an incoming set caught her by surprise, overtopping her Wellies. Wet socks. Ick. What a dummy.
She retreated several yards landward until the set ran itself out. She knew the reprieve was temporary. She’d been warned.
Still, the mysterious, submerged brightness beckoned her. It was probably just a snake-lock anemone, but it lacked the animal’s trademark feathery fronds. Perhaps the head of an octopus…
It was a head, of a man. A young man with curly black hair floating back from his upturned face. Not long dead, the eyeballs were still there, rolled up to horrid red pustules, where blood vessels had burst the whites. Striations at the base of his neck looked like whorls on a lurid rocksnail. His skull was crammed, vise-like, into a cranny on the very edge of the rock shelf. The O of his open mouth might have been moaning in awestruck despair, pinned like that to the edge of the continent. His naked body wavered down in the dark, cold water, his arms out at 45-degree angles, a final shavasana.
What to do? She looked up at the horizon and took a deep breath.
This is not an emergency, she told herself. The man is dead. But she had to bring the body in. It would be heavy, she knew, and slippery, if she could even manage to pry the head lose.
As she pondered her dilemma, she realized she was staring not at the horizontal surface of the ocean, but at a forming swell. A wave far bigger than the one that had breached the tops of her boots gained momentum.
Levering herself with her shillelagh, she began to scramble shoreward. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the bull kelp where she had abandoned it.
The ocean rising up behind her had grown so massive that the rogue wave did not even break. Instead, she heard a whump as the swell hit the rock ledge and a rattling hiss as the wall of water rushed across the tide pools.
It slammed her chest-down onto the coarse abrasion of the sandstone. She did not feel the razor-edged barnacles and rough-backed limpets shredding her palms as she frantically felt for a hold.
The force pushed her into the side of a fairly deep tide pool, luckily, because her hands and feet found the walls and she braced herself like St. Clement on his Mariner's Cross. She had time for a breath before the backwash. The wave had not reached the cliffs, and so was not exploding back upon her. She felt the ocean try to tug her away in its seaward rush as it swirled and scoured in the tide pool.
When she felt the flow lessen the tiniest bit, she took her chance and scrambled further toward the cliffs. The second wave of the set was at least as large as the first, but she found a junior-sized sea stack that broke the onslaught, which was not as bad since she was farther in.
Reaching the temporary safety of the cliff base, she leaned against the land, gasping. As pushed her dripping hair off her face, she noticed the bloody shreds of her palm. It looked like she had run it over the coarse side of a grater, several times.
She didn’t stop to wash her wounds in the iodine rich water, though. She wanted out of there.
The heat blast pounced on Sam Rothberg. He didn’t feel it until he was fully committed to the catwalk and there was no pulling back. It was a nanosecond, but the lag in his brain stretched between registering the heat and registering his fall, as if he were the ectoplasmic star of an unbelievably real cartoon. The catwalk had been too narrow for his size-22 field boots to slip past one another. The lugged sole of one caught on the hem of his jeans. He flailed for the railing, but like most things in his life, it was too low.
As he fell the hundred fifty feet toward the vats, he had time to wonder: Why had he yanked open the wrong door, why had it been unlocked? Didn’t that violate some safety code? Hadn’t Rob shown him this way to the next observation deck, to see the liquid gold poured into the ingot molds? Sam’s fingers grazed the rail. He clutched but missed. He’d never been deft with his hands. He thought of his daughter’s baby-soft palm, so tiny when she held it up to his.
As the two hundred and sixty-four pounds of his seven-foot frame hurtled, he noticed his wide, pale fingers in the dense air. Funny, they seemed out of his reach. Golden light shot up from below recalled a sunbeam he had tried to grasp while he, a baby, had lain on a backyard lawn that sprawled beyond the horizon. He had known what it was to be blissfully small. The last thing he felt was a triumph of conviction: all his life he’d been trying to get people to understand it was hard to be too big, and now he was proving it.
The temperature in the crucible seared shut all his sensory receptors before he hit the molten gold.
Rocks are like stories, their properties like a language. With her fingers, Colleen Fitzgerald knew how to read the flakiness of shale deposits. Without thinking, she hefted things in her hands, tested their specific gravity, their resistance compared to water. The contours of intrusive outcroppings suggested to her ancient, slow catastrophes and, perhaps, the angle of descent of an ore vein. She could site drilling rigs on anticlinal crests. She could map mines.
But none of that mattered at the moment because seven days ago Sam Rothberg had been killed in an accident at the Summitville Mine, and she was afraid she had loved him. Very much afraid.